Sunday, August 23, 2015

One of my writing pet peeves

This is a re-post from four years ago, but the condition still exists.

I saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which I liked but didn’t love (even if all the critics tell me I'm supposed to love it). There were some nice moments in it, I enjoyed the fantasy aspects but ultimately thought it would have made a better Woody Allen short story. (If you’re not familiar with his collection of short stories, treat yourself. They’re hilarious and wildly imaginative. Get Without Feathers or Getting Even.) But I digress as usual…

One aspect of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS really bothered me -- all the wasted dialogue. Woody Allen isn't the only culprit, I see it in other movies and shows too. And it's just a personal pet peeve. But if you’re a young writer-hopeful (I like that term so much better than wannabe. Wannabe sounds like an Indian Guides troop.), you might want to give this rant some consideration.

You only have a certain amount of time to tell a story. Every word needs to count. In MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (warning: scene spoiler alert but it won't effect your enjoyment of the movie), there's a potentially funny sequence when Owen Wilson (picture Woody Allen but young and Gentile) is trapped in a hotel room with earrings he took from his fiancé (for a reason I won't divulge). On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions. I'm sure Neil Simon, if given the same comic premise, would do the same.

But not here. Here the scene is filled with,

"My earrings are gone!"
"Really? You sure?"
"Did you check everywhere?"
"Yes. They're missing."
"Really?" Did you even bring them?"
"Yes I brought them."
"I don't know that you did".
"I did."
“I don’t remember seeing them.”
“I brought them. I saw them this morning.”
“You did?”

You get the point.

Sorry but to me that's just lazy writing. You may say, "well, that's the way people talk.". And I would say absolutely -- but it's not interesting. It's sure not funny and this is a block comedy scene. As a writer it's your job to do better. Anyone can write the exchange I presented above. Your job is to make it funnier or more compelling or more thought-provoking or…more whatever.

Can people stammer? Sure. Do they talk ungrammatically? Every sentence. They also hedge and hem and haw and talk in circles. And you can use those qualities and still be engrossing. I refer you to any David Mamet play. Naturalistic dialogue doesn't have to be boring. But it takes skill to make it sing. At least attempt to do that.

Some would say that promotes dialogue that is too stylized. And often times they're right. Just as bad as boring conversation is the "no human being would ever say that" charge. But I'd rather err on the side of style, on the side of trying too hard rather than not enough.

I can hear some of you now. What about Aaron Sorkin? He uses a lot of short sentences and characters repeating other characters’ lines. What about him? I know. I’ve even spoofed him myself. But there is a definite flow to Sorkin’s dialogue. There’s a rhythm. Everything is carefully designed. It’s not just idle chit-chat, it’s lyrics.

I'll stop just short of saying you're making art because that always sounds incredibly pretentious so I'll just say you’re making diversions worthy of our time and even our money. Make every word count.

Maybe Woody should have traveled back to Paris in the 1920s – and spent more time with Hemingway.


VP81955 said...

A reminder that we all need editing. Even you, Woody.

Bill Avena said...

Meanwhile, all the great comic writing to be seen on "Bob's Burgers" goes ignored by Gramps Levine. That'll get your vacuum tubes humming, 23 skidoo!

Ellen said...

This advice applies to novels, as well. One of the most egregious errors is when writers insist on including greetings:

"Hello," she said.

"Hi, Mabel," he said. "How are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?"


Sometimes my writing students insist they need it for authenticity, and I have to explain that flushing the toilet is authentic, too, but it doesn't need to be in your pages unless there's a reason for it. And I can remember only one instance where "I'm fine" was a piece of dialogue with a valid reason ...

President Merkin Muffley: Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri... Clear and plain and coming through fine... I'm coming through fine, too, eh?... Good, then... well, then, as you say, we're both coming through fine... Good... Well, it's good that you're fine and... and I'm fine... I agree with you, it's great to be fine..

Breadbaker said...

In some ways it is more remarkable that this qualified as an "original" screenplay than that it won the Oscar. It was basically the Purple Rose of Cairo with some genders reversed and some time travel.

H Johnson said...

I agree. I always thought that scene seemed unfinished. But that is one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. I thought he captured the 'yearning' of feeling out of place and time. It's hard to show an emotion but I thought the story did that well.


Pete Grossman said...

Agreed, Mr. Allen tends to "pontificate," a word he likes to use. Fortunately, I liked the message of the story (the message to me anyway) about the time you're living in is the best time to be living in, so that smoothed off some of my annoyance.

Pete Grossman said...

FRIDAY INQUIRY - Ken, would you be kind enough to get into what a treatment is - how much dialogue is put into it, how much exposition in setting the scene(s). Yes, tell your story, but how much without becoming a novella? Also, are treatments read these days or are scripts the norm?


Lovey said...

Owen Wilson what a waste. I'd be 68% less annoyed today had he succeeded in his suicide attempt. Yet another venture he's a failure at. Maybe he can try it again, there's always hope. Bill Cosby should go with him.

mdv1959 said...

I thought the movie had a so-so premise with mediocre execution.

That said, I wonder if Woody Allen even wrote that dialogue? I thought he was famous for letting actors 'act' and I'd guess it was just Owen Wilson doing his 'Owen Wilson' thing (see Shanghai Noon for ample examples).

I guess you can fault Woody for not editing it, but I assume he wanted Owen Wilson in the role or he wouldn't have cast him. So he got what he wanted.

Canda said...

But Woody Allen's screenplays are always more verbal than cinematic. It's a style.

And the scene you're referring to is the one where Owen Wilson has taken the earrings, and now he has to try to figure
out how to convince Rachel McAdams that she never brought them. I thought it played pretty well in the movie.

Like all Woody Allen movies, Woody writes the dialogue as if he'd be playing the scene. It's funnier if you watch the
scene that way. Woody would have been hysterical in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS if he were 40 years younger.

Most people, including me, who saw the movie particularly loved the Hemingway send-up.

Anonymous said...

Annie Hall: It's so clean out here (talking about California)
Alvy Singer:That's because they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows. LOL Janice B.

Roger R. said...

Didn't "Back to the Future" already cover this ground? Just saying - and I'm a big Woody fan.

mmryan314 said...

Dialogue can be okay in anything until it bores me - I agree with Ken that Sorkin didn`t bore me.What Does BORE me are endless, endless fighting scenes, car chases with repetitive background, too many one liner jokes in a scene, pornographic going no where stuff. If the project has all of the above but no heart- I`m bored.

Pat Reeder said...

Watching Woody Allen's recent films, you can always tell which character he would've played if he'd wanted to or been young enough because that character always talks exactly like Woody Allen, right down to the same stammer and whiny stressing of certain syllables ("I-I-I can't be-LEEEEEVE you'd say that!") Either it's typed out like that, or Woody must be coaching them phonetically. It's weird to hear Woody Allen's delivery coming out of the mouths of Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Will Ferrell, etc. As a lifelong Woody fan, I go all the way back to "Take The Money and Run," and have sat through some major disappointments, but the one with Will Ferrell was the first time I ever gave up and turned off one of Woody's movies because I just couldn't stand any more. If I had to hear one more second of Woody's stammer and whine coming out of Will Ferrell's face, I would have thrown a lamp through my TV screen.

On another topic: Ken, did you see that Bud Yorkin passed away last week? Wondered if you had any personal stories about him. His name was in the news a bit recently when Norman Lear's memoir came out, and there were a lot of comments about how little space or credit he gave to his one-time partner in all those groundbreaking shows.

Donald Benson said...

Pat Reeder nails it. Out of nowhere we get a scene that's all about sounding like Woody Allen.

Another issue: Why the hell didn't he go straight out and BUY a pair of earrings, instead of swiping a pair from his fiancee / live-in mate that would be missed very, very soon? These are all rich Americans with glamour jobs and too much discretionary income.

Another thing that bugged me: Wilson, our hero, is falling in love -- or at least lust -- with this 1920s girl and is actively pursuing her on the sly while pretending everything's cool with the girlfriend. Then it's suddenly and conveniently made OK by the fact the girlfriend was cheating on him; he's even allowed some non-ironic outrage.

Another another thing: Gertrude Stein detects the affair in Wilson's novel. That tells us the novel is an indulgent self portrait barely disguised as fiction; also that its author is so unperceptive he can write about the affair and not see it.

This could have been a movie about a preening fraud whose exposure to his literary idols forces him to get over himself, connect with the real people in his life, and perhaps see his way to becoming a real writer. Instead, it's Mr. Good Guy meets a 20s girl who's Better than his real-life girlfriend; girlfriend is revealed as Not Worthy of him (despite stolen earrings, etc.); when 20s girl leaves him, he returns to his own time to start anew with a beautiful (and seemingly younger) Parisian girl.

Stephen Robinson said...

Donald Benson: You describe my issues with most of Allen's work in the past 20 or so years. What especially bothers me is that so many otherwise intelligent people like to hold up Allen a a great writer of women. But he has two types: Young idolizer of the "Woody Allen" character and shrewish harpy (and it's never clear *why* the Woody Allen character wound up with the harpy). This goes back to MANHATTAN (Hemingway, Streep, Keaton).

Speaking of the "indulgent self-potrait barely disguised as fiction," one can argue that perhaps Allen himself is equally unperceptive when it comes to his own work. Someone commented on how Allen's current view of his longtime partner Mia Farrow is painfully evident in whatever film they made at the time: Almost inhumanly gorgeous and desired by all lover in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY then salvation of a tortured soul in ZELIG and then a respected artist/partner who is allowed to shine in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO and then... maybe a bit too perfect with too many kids and maybe I'm attracted to her sister in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. By SEPTEMBER, Diane Wiest is playing the "desired" character, and Farrow begins a run of emotionally distraught, dumpy characters and finally we end up with the passive aggressive manipulative shrew in HUSBANDS AND WIVES, who arguably is how Allen continues to view Farrow.

VP81955 said...

Donald Benson said...

This could have been a movie about a preening fraud whose exposure to his literary idols forces him to get over himself, connect with the real people in his life, and perhaps see his way to becoming a real writer. Instead, it's Mr. Good Guy meets a 20s girl who's Better than his real-life girlfriend; girlfriend is revealed as Not Worthy of him (despite stolen earrings, etc.); when 20s girl leaves him, he returns to his own time to start anew with a beautiful (and seemingly younger) Parisian girl.

It's as if he excused himself from the lessons he gave the audience in 1985's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," arguably the best film he made but didn't act in.

Anonymous said...

Snark warning. A) Shouldn't an accomplished writer know the difference between affect and effect? B) I can't believe no one asked you that four years ago.

Graeme said...

The first time I read you moan about Woody Allen it was interesting even though I disagreed. The 15th time... Ken, I think you're a brilliant writer, I admire your work, I love your blog... but have you just thought that maybe he's not for you and spend your time watching things you enjoy?